The first time I watched I Know What You Did Last Summer was at a slumber party. I couldn’t have been more than 12 and, needless to say, I saw most of the movie from behind the sofa. As an adult, it’s clear how little sense it all makes, but there’s no denying the seminal slasher – from the pen of Scream writer Kevin Williamson no less – is still effective and surprisingly scary. There’s an inherent moodiness to I Know What You Did Last Summer that transcends other slashers. A major part of its continuing appeal is the setting, which marks the flick out from essentially everything that came before or after it. Weirdly, it also shares DNA with Jaws since both are set around the 4th of July.
I Know What You Did Last Summer takes place in the small fishing town of Southport, North Carolina, and the filmmakers get an impressive amount of mileage out of the locale. The killer’s fisherman outfit is area-appropriate, as well as being scarily ubiquitous, which makes it tough to spot him and sense when danger is approaching, while his weapon, a fishhook, is deliciously brutal. Moreover, the finale, which takes place entirely on a boat out to sea, is ruthlessly inventive, with numerous tight hiding spots for Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Final Girl, Julie, to lodge herself into. Elsewhere, Dawson’s Beach is an unintentional reference to Dawson’s Creek, which debuted the following year. Southport feels like a real town, the geography clear and each element considered. It also perfectly fits the overwrought, teen angst-laden tone, from the opening, ominous shots of THE ROAD onwards.
The fact Type O Negative’s cover of “Summer Breeze” kicks things off should signal what kind of movie we’re in for. Nowadays, it’s tough to imagine that idea even coming up let alone being greenlit. I mean, a goth band whose singer once posed for Playgirl, doing their gloomy take on a song originated by seventies rockers Seals & Crofts? They were wilder times for sure. These days, you’d probably get something incredibly obvious like Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy.” Elsewhere, John Debney’s score is evocative, tense, and super creepy. Shockingly, he also tackled the music for the dreadful Hocus Pocus 2 and The Amazing Showman, so clearly Debney is a man of many talents, but here it’s pitch-black perfection. Just the right amount of intensity and nerve-shredding strings to alert us that something is off. I Know What You Did Last Summer has spawned many memes – namely “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!?” – but it’s worth noting this is surprisingly vicious for a modern horror movie.
The deaths are slow and drawn out, chiefly because of the nature of the killer’s chosen weapon – particularly Barry’s, which seems to be punishment for how much of a psycho he is earlier in the movie. Ryan Phillippe was a total teen dream at the time, thanks to his TV roles in the likes of One Life to Live, so it’s fascinating watching him play completely against type here. Aside from clearly having a drinking problem, Barry is aggressive, gets physical with Julie and openly yells in his friends and girlfriend’s faces. He’s the macho ideal that, back in the nineties, men were expected to aspire to, but Williamson has fun tearing him to pieces, perhaps making up for a lifetime of being mistreated as a gay man himself. It’s always creepy imagining a stranger lurking in your home, but I Know What You Did Last Summer takes it to another level by only subjecting Sarah Michelle Gellar’s beauty queen, Helen, to a rough haircut. Later, the killer will chase her through town and eventually her family’s store, which Helen has been forced to work in after her acting career failed to take off. It’s an exciting, lengthy, and incredibly tense sequence that’s brilliantly executed and performed. Likewise, help is always just out of reach, which makes Helen’s death seem especially cruel.
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The movie isn’t laden with jump scares either; it’s impressively atmosphere driven, but they’re good when they do pop up, both well-timed and not telegraphed to within an inch of their life the way they often are nowadays. The ending is built off a jump scare, and is clearly sequel-baiting, but the fact the tension doesn’t dissipate right until the moment the credits roll is impressive too. Obviously, it’s tainted by sequels of rapidly diminishing quality (“Will Benson? Ben’s SON!?”) but, taken as is, the whole “I still know” twist and how it ties back to what the killer warns Julie and Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) after revealing himself, is immensely satisfying.
Boasting arguably the hottest cast of young, A-list nineties talent ever, I Know What You Did Last Summer consistently plays with our expectations of who’s a goner. The body count is relatively low, but that just makes it even more thrilling trying to work out who’s next. It’s tough to pick a favorite among the central foursome; Hewitt holds her own despite being saddled with long-ass Mormon skirts in an ill-advised attempt to make Julie frumpy, and Prinze Jr. pulls out his signature puppy-dog stare, making it seem as though Ray is constantly on the brink of tears, while Philippe, as previously mentioned, delectably plays against type. The standout might just be Gellar though, as the brazened and ultra-confident Helen who’s immediately cowed by their mistake and sees her life crumble to pieces as a result. Although Hewitt imbues Julie with a haunted look after she returns home from college, there’s a sadness to Helen that never dissipates. Gellar’s voice gets quieter too, almost as if she’s lost the will to even speak up anymore. Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted the same year as I Know What You Did Last Summer, and it’s wild seeing just how disparate, but equally great, these two performances are.
As for side characters, The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki does good work as local slimeball Max, to the extent you almost wish he survived a bit longer just so he could be a legit suspect. Having said that, Max’s death is among the most brutal, and it occurs in daylight to boot. Elsewhere, the late, great Anne Heche makes an impression in her small role as a mysterious outsider. Equal parts sympathetic and wholly untrustworthy, Heche’s minor character seems like she has a real story to tell, even if we don’t hang around long enough to hear it. I Know What You Did Last Summer is essentially the “Man Door Hand Hook Car Door” meme in movie form, as evidenced by the fact the two blondes and two brunettes have to date each other to avoid any cross-contamination. Likewise, the women are blindly rational and clear-headed, the guys less so, and the exclamation point in the killer’s one and only note is what really makes it seem threatening (the fact it looks like an afterthought is even better). The thing is overflowing with overwrought teen angst, most of which Hewitt is forced to communicate from beneath the most nineties fringe ever, which is sadly hidden for a short while under an inexplicable hat. “I don’t want to know you!” she screams at Ray at one point, despite the fact he’s nowhere near as openly crazy as Barry. And, obviously, the “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” moment is an all-timer, brilliantly skewered in Scary Movie.
It’s silly stuff and the killer’s motivations don’t make much sense, but that just showcases the film’s effectiveness. Consider how jaw-droppingly lackluster the recent spinoff TV series was, and it starts to become clear just how special and truly unique I Know What You Did Last Summer still is, despite its flaws. The moody, Dawson’s Creek-style cinematography, committed performances from an A-list ensemble cast, and genuinely terrifying stalk-and-slash sequences all remain remarkably solid, and it doesn’t feel like it’s aged much either, despite the amount of terrible nineties fashion on show. Sure, it’s not Scream, but then nothing really is. But when it comes to slashers, you could do a lot worse – just check out any of the risible sequels.